When Oblivion was first released for the Xbox 360, it represented, to many, the apex of console role-playing games. It transplanted players into a gorgeous, massive world that was theirs’ for the taking. There were hundreds of hours of gameplay to be found in the game’s robust story arch as well as its many and varied guilds and factions. Different styles of play, be it melee, magic, or stealth all provided distinct experiences for players willing to explore the depths. For all its many successes, the one thing I always thought that Oblivion was missing was a sense of character. Granted, there were a few NPCs here and there that managed to distinguish themselves as memorable, but for the most part they all behaved like robots. I was never able to suspend my disbelief that I was actually talking to real people. And it really hurt the game. It was easy enough to get into your role as a hero as you’re destroying daedra and closing Oblivion gates, but as soon as you got back to town the experience went from organic to mechanical.
Shivering Isles, the new Oblivion expansion from Bethesda Softworks, goes a long way towards correcting this nagging qualm from the first game. Though it’s called an expansion, Shivering Isles is really a world in itself. Connected to the Tamriel by a portal on an island next to Bravil, the only thing the two games have in common is the player. Nearly everything else, including items, characters, enemies, and landscapes are entirely new, which is more than a little refreshing considering how redundant Oblivion can get after 100+ hours of play. The Shivering Isles are ruled by Sheogorath, the Daedric Prince of Madness, and are split into the realms of Mania and Dementia. As you can imagine, the notion of insanity and madness plays a big part in Shivering Isles, and nearly all of its inhabitants demonstrate some sort of mental defect, which prove to be endlessly amusing.
Consider for example the town of Split, where a malevolent wizard cast a spell on the people of the village, dividing its inhabitants in two. Neither set of villagers has much tolerance for their doppelgangers, and will try and commission you to kill their better halves. Most quests take on a character of this sort, and the general idea of insanity is pervasive. Bethesda also appears to have acknowledged the wooden nature of their dialogue, and use it great effect, with much of the interactions taking on a very schizophrenic character. Sheogorath for example has a habit of yelling random insults and threats at you in a think faux-Scotch accent, all the while congratulating you for your progress.
The main story arch has you doing tasks for Sheogorath, as you try and rise in the ranks of his court. The tasks are varied, but they mostly boil down to the typical dungeon crawls and fetch-quests. That’s not to make it sound like they aren’t fun, as they’ll throw an interesting curve ball at you every now and again, but by the time you wrap up the main quests after twenty hours or so of play, you’ll have seen your fill. All the enemies you fight are new, but because there haven’t been any major changes to the way that combat works, it still boils down to the usual game of cat and mouse with NPC’s. You can craft some gorgeous-looking new weapons and armor, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll be much of an improvement if you already have the end-game armor set from the main game, or carry Umbra around in your bag.
Coming in at $30, Shivering Isles offers a lot of value for fans of Oblivion, and is more than enough of a reason to dust off your old copy and put it back in your 360. It certainly doesn’t revolutionize anything, as most of Oblivion‘s quirks are still present, but the madness motif works very well, and goes a long way towards supplanting that soulless robotic feeling that originally pervaded the game. It’s much easier to believe that NPCs are crazy than it is to project onto them human emotions. Despite being utterly mad, the world of Shivering Isles is strangely compelling, and is as worthy of your attention as any other full-priced release. Elder Scrolls fans would be crazy not to give this one a look.